The Photographers Gallery: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s
Works from The Verbund Collection
Visited on Friday 25th October 2016
The 1970’s, they feel so far away, history to me actually, considering I was born in the 90’s. So far away yet, so close when you look at the work of these feminists, in the new exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, fighting about topics that are still being fought for today and are still highly controversial. The works exhibited in Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s are of practices that actively contributed to the feminist art movement of the 1970’s, offering at the time and now, a radical, poetic, ironic and often provocative investigations of female artists who challenge traditional patterns about gender and art.
“There are, inevitably, vaginas. Of course there are; it wouldn’t be a show about the 1970s feminist avant-garde without them. But the vaginas are not the central focus of the new exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery (…)”
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett for The Guardian, 2016.
A small introduction to what feminist art in the 1970’s entails is given at the entrance of the exhibition. Stating that the works of these once young artists was propelled by the momentum of Civil Rights, peace and student movements in the 1960’s ‘second wave’ feminism. These artists used their work as a cultural and political tool, tackling patriarchy and sexism in society, as well as in the art world, through new methods of expression. Using their own bodies as central subjects, whilst crossing the public and private realms, they address themes such as politicisation of domestic and public space, the glorification of the ‘male’ art history, feminine identities, gender roles and sexual beliefs.
Katalin Ladik & Valie Export
The exhibition mainly focuses on photography but includes some performance, video and sculpture pieces that create a nice pleasant balance and break from the immense amount of photography. It draws around two hundred works from forty-eight different artists all placed into two different rooms. Although this seems like a lot to shove into two relatively small spaces, it didn’t feel at any point like there wasn’t room to “breathe” or that it was totally stuffed. In fact, it might be overwhelming for some people the amount of works hanging or exhibited , but then again this is an exhibition about feminism and feminism can be quite overwhelming in general for some people, so in this case I think it works very well for the exhibition.
Between the two floors of exhibition space, the work was divided into 4 sections; “The Seductive Body”, “Domestic Agenda”, “In My Skin” and “Alter Ego”. Each chapter has its own paragraph of information to underline the key points of the matter and how the artists achieved these points through their art.
Walking through the exhibition I wasn’t expecting to find so many artists that not only do I know, but also find inspirational. Such artists like Helena Almeida, Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann. And I absolutely fell in love with the works of Lile Dujourie Francesca Woodman and Kirsten Justesen which I knew nothing about. They captivated me most not because they were in ‘your face’ and shocking but on the contrary they were very simple and slightly more discreet than some of the other works, yet also very powerful and at the same time beautiful and mesmerizing. However, having said this, I still did enjoy some of the more extremely provocative pieces, for example, Judy Chicago’s Red Flag, basically a close up study of a crimson tampon being removed from a vagina. There was something oddly satisfying about this piece and to some extent a beauty behind it due to the chosen crimson colour of the tampon.
Although, you might know many of the artists in this exhibition, it is almost impossible to know all of them, as there are so many. However, the works that end up capturing your attention more are those of the artists that you don’t know. And the fact is, it makes you want to write those names down and find out more about them.
The “hefty, austere-looking exhibition guide” as James Manning pointed out, is actually an extremely handy little exhibition guide. For every work, it not only provides a small image and a small caption along side it, it also provides a quite good amount of information about every artist and their work. So, for those who are jotting down the names of the artist they don’t know but want to find out more about them, get a small little preview of the artist’s life and work. It also works well with the exhibition for its simple yet 70’s kind of look.
Even if the exhibition includes a lot of artists and there isn’t really much room left to add more works of art, it would have been nice to include a 3rd floor and incorporate some feminist artists from the late 60’s and early 80’s. Or perhaps not have repeated works of the same artists, such as Valie Export who has more than one work exhibited and rather add works by other artists. As James Manning put it “it feels a bit odd to seal off the ’70s when there are still people using the word ‘feminazi”. It would have been nice to see Nan Goldin’s take on domestic violence in the 80’s, Jenny Holzers truisms that still haunt us today and Barbara Kruger’s ‘in your face’ big ironic words and other artists of the sort.
Overall I think that people shouldn’t be afraid to walk into the exhibition. Perhaps the title scares some people off, nevertheless, it entails problems that are still going on today and it is extremely interesting to see how a few women in the seventies fought for issues that are still relevant today. It is in fact an empowering exhibition and highlights the pioneering importance of these women who through these radical artistic practices offered a timely reminder of the continuing importance of their work today.
Other Reviews on this Exhibition: